Updated: Aug 31
Fun fact about me … I once thought I was going to be a corporate lawyer. I was so certain about that plan that I took the LSAT, applied to a dozen top schools, spent three years in classes and study groups, and accepted a position at a top New York firm upon graduation. Sometime after all of that work (and success), I decided to change direction and follow a new path. I’ve used all of that legal training in my career in fundraising and philanthropy and don’t consider those years or my current path to be a mistake (my mother would disagree).
PROPERTY is a required class in the first year of law school. We learned about possession and ownership of land, private and public restrictions on its use and development, nuisance, trespass, concurrent interests, landlord and tenant law, and eminent domain. Nothing too tricky… nothing unexpected… all backed up with hundreds of years of international case law that we committed to memory in preparation for class and the final exam.
The exam, I now know, was written to meet our expectations and to allow us to share all our understanding of the case law. But on that morning, I was sure there was a puzzle to solve. I thought it had to be complicated. So, in the question about the “protected carnivorous plant” and land development I wrote about danger to children. I wrote about endangered species of animals that might come near the plant. I wrote about the need for signage and the pros and cons of fencing. I wrote about the property owners’ obligation to inform their neighbors. I believe I used a zoo analogy. I imagined the looming plant (think “Little Shop of Horrors”) threatening the neighborhood. I handed in my very dramatic final exam and left the room.
And then, several blocks into my walk home, I remembered the Venus flytrap. Carnivorous? Yes. A danger to children and passers-by? Definitely not. My heart sank and I knew that I had been distracted by the shiny object in the question. I knew that my drama had likely caused me to miss the meat of the question (no pun intended).
This happens to us all sometimes. The excitement (child eating plants!) takes us down the wrong path. We forget the core of the work as we follow the drama.
Being certain of the answer does not mean you are right.
Another time I got it wrong: A snazzy couple – dressed to the nines on a weekday morning – came to the Museum where I was the Director of Major Gifts and asked to see me. The described the artwork they had been gifted. It included works by artists we all know (or at least can pretend to know). A significant collection. This was drama! The wheels were set in motion over the next weeks and months – curatorial visits in the Museum lobby, lunches, proposals, a review of their documentation. We talked about financial support of the collection, we talked about taxes, we toured galleries. In the excitement of the opportunity, we all neglected the most basic of preparations. WE NEVER SAW THE ART. In fact, the couple was a carnivorous planting in my day … eating hours of my workday as part of an odd and never explained ruse.
And a time I got it right: The son of long-time supporters came to the organization and we met to speak about a “next” gift from their family Foundation. I was tempted to talk about the areas where his parents had supported our work. Instead I listened to him describe his interests and by the end of our first meetings I had identified a funding opportunity that provided a long-term engagement opportunity and a larger gift than we had previously received from the Foundation.
The excitement of the unexpected can easily lead you astray and cause you to forget the basics. On a law school exam this can mean a bad grade. In our non-profit work it can mean spending time on the wrong project, taking an “easy” gift rather listening for the right gift, or wasting time with a non-qualified donor.
1. Take a breath before jumping into action. A minute spent thinking about your answer may save you from chasing the drama to its inevitably bad conclusion.
2. Listen to your donors. What do they see as the risks?
3. Listen to your instincts. Sometimes what sounds too good to be true is really too good to be true.
4. We all have blind spots. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help of your manager or team when you aren’t sure of the answer (unfortunately this can’t be done on final exams!).
To learn more about mobilizing your team around the tactics and teamwork that might work for your organization – reach out to us at www.temkatandmouse.com.